And now, the final conclusion of this list.
20. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Rourke has always been a fantastic actor, but the choices that he has made throughout his life have been another story. Only until recently was Rourke able to find people willing to hire him again. And then came this little gem about a washed-up wrestler looking to regain a glimpse of what his life used to be like. While trying to attain this he falls for a stripper (Marisa Tomei) and tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter and Rourke's monologue with his daughter at the fairgrounds is nothing short of amazing. Rourke would be nominated for an Oscar for this in 2009 and win the Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Awards for Best Actor for this.
19. Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
Most of the time, when we see Jack Nicholson in a movie, we like seeing Jack be Jack. Sometimes, he plays that character so much, it seems like we forget why he's considered such a great actor. Then in 2002 he starred in this Alexander Payne dramedy about a retired man searching for meaning in his life after the death of his wife and his daughter becoming engaged to a loser. It's amazing that Nicholson was able to blend in so well as someone so devoid of energy. In pursuing this character, he is no longer Jack Nicholson, legendary playboy of Hollywood, but seems more like a someone you'd call "grandpa". Jack justly won a Golden Globe for this and received his 12th Oscar nomination as well.
18. George Clooney, Michael Clayton
It was tough decideing between this Clooney performance or Up in the Air, but the main reason I chose his thrilling turn in Michael Clayton is because Up in the Air had a bit too much of Clooney's natural character to it. In this movie, however, Clooney succeeds at playing someone who is living below their potential. As an accomplished graduate who is now a fixer at a major corporate lawfirm, Clooney also portrays a single father and someone who is trying to make the best of things and when a revelation about a corporate client comes to light, Clooney becomes the crusader who will defy anything to fight for true justice against an institutional enemy. Clooney would receive numerous accolades including Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in 2008.
17. Bjork, Dancer in the Dark
Of the recent winners at the Cannes Film Festival, this one stands out because of the plethora of mixed reviews that it generated. From reviews of "astonishing" (EW) and "thrilling and audacious" (SF Chronicle) to "deeply irritating" (LA Times) and "artistically bankrupt" (Variety) it was hard to believe it got the coveted Palm D'Or. But not many people could argue with the performance delivered by the Icelandic pop star. Bjork described her experience of making this as so emotionally taxing that she would never act again. But at least she left us with this performance of determination, agony, suffering and ultimately escaping as an immigrant mother trying to provide the best for her son and make sure he doesn't suffer the same fate of blindness that she will.
16. Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom
Wilkinson has quickly become one of my favorite actors of our time. Whether playing the witty or the crazy (as he brilliantly did in Michael Clayton) Wilkinson always commands your attention. He did it in The Full Monty but as a father coping with a devastating family tragedy in In the Bedroom, Wilkinson displays the personification of pure grief and vengence. At times humorous, but at most times harrowing, his performance is one that no one can ignore and can only be defined as genius.
15. Brian Cox, L.I.E.
Cox has always been a great character actor. You'd see him in small supporting roles in Braveheart (Wallace's uncle) or Rushmore (school headmaster) and even originating the role of Hannibal Lechter (Manhunter). But with this role in Michael Cuesta's indie drama, Cox completely commands every scene he's in as "Big John" a community staple and ex-Marine who likes younger teenage boys. As Howie (a teenager coping with the loss of his mother) becomes closer to John, we cringe at what we think John might do, but when John ends up playing a paternal figure instead, Cox is able to have us view John in a not so simplistic manner. And with the most heinous of monsters, if an actor can get us to feel for them, that is something extraordinary.
14. Naomi Watts, Mulholland Dr.
In order to appreciate Watts's performance in this twisted piece of David Lynch crazy, you might have to watch the movie a couple times and then look on the internet for what the hell the movie was dealing with. But the amazing level of duality Watts displays as an aspiring actress in Hollywood is mesmerizing. She commands her performance and makes you invested in everything she does. It blows your mind that she didn't get nominated for an Oscar for this. Plus, it was really hot when she was in bed with Laura Elena Harring.
13. Bill Murray, Lost in Translation
Zombieland said it and I will reiterate it, Bill Murray is one of the finest actors on the planet. Sofia Coppola knew this, and that's why she knew Murray was perfect to play aging actor Bob Harris in her sophomore effort. Murray's brilliant ability to look completely disconnected from everything is instrumental to showing us the state that Harris is in upon arriving in Tokyo. But upon meeting a newlywed (Scarlet Johanssen)with similar emotions, they find comfort and solace in each other. Nothing is romantic about it but Murray conveys the right amount of intimacy with her and their adventure together is a pleasure to watch. Murray would win a Golden Globe and a slew of film critics's prizes and earned his first Oscar nod for this.
12. Adriana Barraza, Babel
Babel is a movie that slams together cultures from all over, but of everything in the movie, nothing was more memorable than the performance delivered by Barraza. As a Mexican housekeeper, who doesn't want to miss her son's wedding and brings her American employer's children to Mexico for the wedding, she shows a woman who does not expect much but just wants to be there for those she cares about, whether it's her family or someone elses. But when things go wrong at the border, we truly see Barraza shine as she desperately tries to correct her mistakes and survive in awful circumstances. Another performance justly deserving of it's Oscar nomination.
11. Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven
Moore puts her complete talent on display as a 1950's housewife in Connecticut who realizes her life is nowhere near as perfect as she thinks it is. She walks in on her husband (Dennis Quaid) going at it with another man and is starting to have these deep feelings for her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert) and is trying to cope with the realities that her life is now presenting her. Even though she knows things won't work out in the best way, Moore carries her character with a quiet feeling of self-assuredness, showing what a powerful actress she is. This landed Moore her third Oscar nomination and a mountain of critics awards.
10. Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
By 2004, Carrey had already proved he could play outside his goofy comedy tradition with amazing performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, but his role as Joel, a man who tries to erase his memory of his ex-girlfriend after she's had the same procedure, is by far his most sublime yet. Carrey is able to convincingly play a man who is not very exciting and very bland, but at the same time very likable. And having consoled several friends through their own miserable breakups, the agony that Carrey shows is nothing short of realistic.
9. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Dench is truly just a great actress and it was insanely tough to only choose one of her performances for this list. But her performance as a teacher who falls for a younger female teacher (Cate Blanchett) and then uses her knowledge of the teacher having an affair with a student to blackmail her into friendship is a truly twisted and sociopathic performance. Every move she makes and syllable she pronounces that is written in her diary comes off with a quality of malice and cold calculation as to how anything can be played to her advantage. This earned Dench her sixth Oscar nomination.
8. Adrien Brody, The Pianist
Brody had been in a big role once, in Terrence Mallik's WWII drama The Thin Red Line, but the role was virtually unnoticable after editing was completed. But Brody got another chance to shine and delivered in this Holocaust drama about a pianist who is pulled off the boxcars and makes his way hiding throughout Europe until the end of the war. Not only did Brody learn to play the piano (beautifully) for the role but he also lost 30 pounds for a portion of the filming and convinces us through the entire film that he really is just trying to survive. Brody deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar for this in 2003 (making him the youngest winner of the honor), received a standing ovation from the crowd and famously kissed Halle Berry as well.
7. Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose
Cotillard made her mark here in America when she played legendary French singer Edith Piaf throughout most of her life. Starting with her being discovered drunkenly singing on a French street at the age of 19 Cotillard brings an amazing sense to her portrayal of Piaf. She goes on to portray until her dying breath at the age of 47 (Piaf had a degenerative liver disorder that caused her to appear older than she actually was) and is amazing in every moment, especially in the way that she never makes Piaf's drunkeness appear too comical. The epitome of this is the scene where she welcomes her lover, Marcel back to her room. Cotillard justly earned the Oscar for Best Actress for this in 2008.
6. Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Right before this film was released, Huffman scored a surprise Emmy win for Desperate Housewives and soon after was already receiving Oscar buzz for this performance. Huffman plays Bree, a pre-op male-to-female transsexual who is one week away from her final surgery (the big one) after 18 years of transitioning. She abruptly finds out that while still a man, she had fathered a son during a one-night stand. It's not just the fact that Huffman plays someone who is transgendered, but that she plays the character in a realistic manner. Bree is a very subdued and reserved woman and is forced into situations of having to explain herself. The dynamic she displays while interacting with her son is great. Huffman proves the great actress she is and, while nominated, was robbed of a Best Actress Oscar she should have won in 2006.
5. Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind
When Crowe won the Best Actor Oscar for Gladiator, I was pretty upset. I became even more upset when I saw this movie because I realized he should have won an Oscar for this. Crowe brings to life, John Nash, who enjoyed great success in economics but suffered a huge downfall in being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic but ultimately rebounded to greater success including a Nobel Prize in Economics. One can never doubt the constant determination that Crowe displays while channeling this character who is determined to set himself apart from everyone else, whether it's with his papers at school or in conquering his illness and it's a performance that shows Crowe's true talent as an actor.
4. Meryl Streep, Doubt
In 2007, I was fortunate enough to see Doubt with the touring cast at the National Theatre with Cherry Jones reprising the role of Sister Aloysius she had originated on Broadway and she blew me away. Naturally, I was skeptical when I heard that Meryl Streep had been cast as the stern Bronx nun, but she proved me wrong within the first few minutes of the film. As a woman who has always been a strict follower of rules, she finds herself conflicted when she suspects the school's popular priest of having an improper relationship with the school's first black pupil. Streep's ferociousness in going after Father Flynn is at times relieving to see but also horrifying, as we don't want to believe that this man who seems kind-hearted could do something so reprehensible. But because of our own doubt in his innocence, we want Streep to keep attacking. And the way Streep delivers the film's final line is nothing but priceless. This would earn Meryl the Screen Actor's Guild Award for Best Actress and Streep would earn her 15th career Oscar nomination for the role.
3. The Cast of United 93
It does seem unfair to put an entire cast in one spot on this list. But in examining this particular film, it feels wrong to acknowledge one cast member above all others. The saying that comes to mind is, "A chain is only as strong as it's weakest link," and if that saying is true then this cast is one of, if not the, strongest chain I have ever seen in terms of a cast. They all played so brilliantly alongside each other, coupled of course with Paul Greengrass's brilliant direction, that you felt as though everyone in their was actually in that moment, rather than just re-imagining what might have happened. The decision to put many of the people on the ground that day in the movie as themselves was quite jarring as well. But they remembered their emotions and it became clear that sometimes the best people to capture a role, aren't even performers in the first place.
2. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
I will never forget when I first saw the images of Heath Ledger as this character when I saw the trailer for The Dark Knight. To describe it as bonechilling would only begin to show how creepy Ledger's interpretation of The Joker would be. With the untimely death of the young actor, Ledger's performance was hyped up to an unknowing end. But when the film premiered, Ledger's performance demonstrated what many already knew, and that was the phenomenal talent that we had lost only months earlier. As a mad man whose only motive is to spread fear, chaos and mayhem, Ledger is chilling to no end. From his "magic trick" of making a pencil disappear to his twisted exchange with Batman in prison, Ledger keeps your eyes always focused on him and even when he's not on screen, you can't get that image of him out of your head. Ledger justly won every award out there for Best Supporting Actor including a posthumous Oscar.
1. Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
Burstyn has always been a great actress who has defined great roles from the mother of a possessed child in The Exorcist to a widow and mother trying to make it as a singer in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. But in playing Sarah Goldfarb, an elderly Jewish widow whose son is a heroine junkie and get's addicted to diet pills in anticipation of appearing on her favorite television program, Burstyn goes beyond anything we have ever seen. Every moment she is on screen, every shreik she gives during her frightening hallucination sequences, every tear she sheds and every moment of sheer desperation to be on television is nothing but completely engrossing. And that compelling performance continues until the final moment after she's come down and her friends see what she has become. Burstyn's journey in this film is not an easy one to take, neither for the audience nor for her, but the power of her performance combined with how much pain and suffering her character goes through makes this performance the best one by far of the past ten years.